Elnathan John reflects on the panel discussion ‘What is narrative, anyway?’ a Commonwealth Writers Conversation held at Doughty Chambers in London on 25 May 2016 in partnership with Human Dignity Trust.
Shuffling out of my row, I mouth an apology to the two persons I am inconveniencing for the second time within a space of two minutes. I have decided, just as I have settled in my seat, that it is better to rush out to the bathroom now, than submit to the urge halfway through this panel discussion. I don’t want to miss anything, in particular something smack, bang, in the middle of it all and leave with a hollow space in my recollection of the debate. Hollow like the empty spaces in official narratives about homosexuality, which echo with discrimination and hate. I am thinking of nuance in storytelling, of how the source of a story affects its ability to capture as many dimensions as possible and of the missing components in mainstream narratives on homosexuality.
I come back just in time to hear Mark Gevisser, author of ‘Walking Girly in Nairobi’ (published in Safe House: Explorations in Creative Nonfiction) begin with his thoughts about the shift from behaviour to identity in a liberal democracy and the huge progress that has been made in post-Apartheid South Africa so that he can now live alongside his husband as a fully actualized citizen.
My mind flashes to Vera Nazarian who wrote in Dreams of the Compass Rose that “all stories have a curious and even dangerous power.” The reins of this power designed to keep homosexuality, in Gevisser’s words, a “liberal decadent scourge from the West” is being taken over by people especially from and on the continent.
Olumide Popoola, a Nigerian-German author on the panel, confirms this when she makes the bold statement that it is an exciting time to be a queer African. I find this extremely important not only in the attempt to understand this potentially dangerous power but also to add nuance to the narrative of the victimisation and discrimination occasioned by the criminalisation of homosexuality in forty-three of the fifty-four Commonwealth countries.
Dean Atta, the poet on the panel, also talks about his life and the fears that he entertained going back home to Jamaica, where contrary to the stereotype, there were a lot of people, albeit middle-class, who were openly gay.
Vera also wrote that “it is best not to tell a story at all unless you know you can do it right.” The power of stories to disrupt official narratives or as Gevisser says “the power of imagination and stories in building humanity” becomes even stronger when these stories originate from the people on the ground who claim ownership of the story and understand the context, people who can tell the story right.
The knowledge that gay rights movements may sometimes exist in amorphous shapes and subtle gradations may allow activists working from outside the continent to think that local solutions might sometimes work better and that what works in one country may not work in another. I recall learning of the arrest of three Nigerian men for offences relating to homosexuality. My first instinct was to suggest the involvement of the LGBT rights groups on the ground. But a friend of the men insisted that it might be better to call a helpful influential politician who quietly helped secure their release through back channels. I realised after that particular instance, making it a human rights issue had the potential of hurting those men, especially given the propensity of Nigerian politicians and authorities to be reactionary in matters concerning this “Western perversion” called homosexuality.
Atta explains that while he sees himself as an activist he prefers to help others through his workshops find the tools to tell their own stories. Popoola wants to help people understand the power of storytelling as a political strategy used to challenge the erosion of the humanity of persons whose lives do not fit into narrow patriarchal definitions.
As writing is about the human condition, finding as many subjects which give insight into their particular condition, in defiance of the silencing that criminalisation of homosexuality brings, is especially powerful.
While I want to go back to my seat, I suspect that, just as stories have the power to disrupt, asking the people in the row I was sitting to move again will not just disrupt but annoy. And standing is not so bad, when you are just behind the refreshments table.
ELNATHAN JOHN is a Nigerian lawyer who quit his job in 2012 to write fulltime. In 2013, he was shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing for his story “Bayan Layi” and again in 2015 for his story “Flying.” He is a 2015 Civitella Ranieri Fellow and, since 2011, has written a satire column about politics and life for a major Nigerian weekly newspaper. His first novel, Born on a Tuesday, set in northern Nigeria, was published in 2015. He lives in Abuja.